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Two Nipples Over The Line

September 15th, 1998

So where is the line anyway? What kinds of images or language are appropriate to include in the main stream media? Do we have any cultural standards for what can and cant be shown on a magazine cover, a television show, a newspaper article? And if we do, who sets them?

In August, 1995, the American public was appalled at a series of advertisements created for fashion designer Calvin Klein in which very young teenagers were interviewed by a gravely voiced older man (off camera) in what looked to be a sort of seedy Rec room. The interviewer engaged the kids in questions about their bodies and what they like to do, and the kids answered cautiously while the shaky handheld camera panned their faces and bodies. The ads were staged to look as if they were part of a low budget movie and were dubbed “kiddie porn” by parents across the country. The outrage was widely covered by the media and the ads were subsequently pulled.

During the uproar, Calvin Klein ran a full page ad in the New York Times to say that the ads were meant to ‘celebrate the individuality of young people today’. However CK wanted to frame the ads, a line had been crossed, people didn’t stand for it and the line was reestablished as firm. You can show any number of very sexual images in advertising and you can use very young models as well, but be careful how young and how sexual you get or the plug will be pulled. Good, so now we know.

Yesterday, I saw the new issue of Vanity Fair magazine which features on the cover a young actress named Gretchen Mol wearing a sheer, low-cut, gray slip. As if the sheerness and the color of the garment weren’t sufficient to see every line of her bare breasts, you can almost hear the ad director saying “Hmmm, what if we got it wet…” And so they did. The slip clings to her breasts and, as she is turned in profile, the outline of her nipples is clear as day.

Nipples aren’t even shown in ads actually relating to breasts (products for nursing mothers, prothesis manufacturers), but is now officially OK to show bare breasts on the cover of a mainstream magazine? And if the line has been moved, with whom do I register my opinion?

I really resent that broaching this subject makes me sound like a prude. People sometimes argue that “the female body is beautiful, why do we have to be so uptight?” But the issue is far too complex to dismiss that easily. The fact is that we Americans are uptight about sex. (Look at how we all titter over the newly released Starr report), yet at the same time we commidify the sexualized female body to sell everything in sight. Using nipples to get our attention is one more shocking tactic to get us to remember another unrelated piece of merchandise.

Until we acknowledge the connection between the commodification of the female body, and sex-based violence against women and girls, it is irresponsible to keep pushing the line toward anything goes/anything shows. The messages that our culture sends to little boys and girls reinforce over and over again that a woman’s body is there to be looked at; judged; admired or rejected. Almost without exception, the women on the covers of popular culture magazines like Vanity Fair, Us, and Rolling Stone are depicted in sexual clothing and poses. To depict men on the cover this way to the same degree they sexualize the women would be downright laughable. In fact it would probably be offensive to continually show actors and sports stars barely dressed with ‘come hither’ looks on their faces, “Eew, he looks like a pervert!” Sure, sometimes these magazines show a man with his shirt off, but even the “sexiest” images of men are not as sexually charged as those of women. Let’s see George Clooney or Antonio Banderas with a sheer, wet garment draped across his bare groin or ass.

Maybe male sexuality is played down in popular culture because ultimately it can prove threatening to both women and men. Women remember that men’s sexuality is at its worst dominating, dismissive or violent, and for straight men of course, the fewer sexy men they notice the better. While women’s sexuality can be threatening too-especially if the woman herself is in control of it!- the boiled down version of woman-as-pliant-sex-object is so pervasive as to be seriously misleading. Another reason men are much less sexualized in the media is because in the end it’s still important that we take the actor/sports star/business mogul seriously. It is hard to care what Brad Pitt thinks if you are aware of his thinly veiled package there between spread legs. From the looks of magazines in particular it doesn’t seem to matter how smart or talented a woman is (or how much the inside article celebrates either) just so long as her image on the cover is sexy enough to A. get her noticed, B. sell magazines.

I discussed this with a friend who works in consumer magazine publishing and she suggests that the female actor may be actively seeking to get our attention in any way she can and that she is ready and willing to show whatever she needs to. Along with her agent, the photographer and the art director they set out to create an image for her that will turn people’s heads. She wants to be noticed by the public, she wants to get roles, she wants to stand out and everybody knows that a woman’s sexualized body sells. This may be the reality for a woman starting out. Show your body until you have enough control of your image and career to decide when and whether you want to show it or not.

The problem is this: we women are very susceptible to be coerced into doing things when told over and over again that we’re pretty or sexy. Because we are acutely aware of the high premium on beauty and sex appeal, it is very difficult to not be wooed if everyone in the room is ‘oohing and ahhing’ over you. I don’t want to suggest that we women are complete pushovers, but there is a reality of female experience that marries the old pressures to be a good girl and not create a stink “Why are you so serious?” “Don’t be such a bitch!” with the continual self-doubt we often have over the way we look, “Wow maybe I am beautiful!” I imagine that the underlying pressure at a photo shoot is similar to all those nights in your teens and twenties when some joker was trying to talk you into sleeping with him, “why are you so uptight? Relax! Go with it!” A woman has to have a very strong sense of herself and the image she wants to convey to not be lured into a wet slip dress at a photo shoot, or out of her dress in a dorm room.

I don’t think that female artists and performers have a whole lot of choice when it comes to the version of themselves that is highlighted on a magazine cover and that’s what bothers me. I think they are often wooed into baring more than they had intended to and I think that many look back on the experience the way many of us look back on certain sexual experiences we’ve had. “I knew I didn’t want to do that! Why didn’t I stand my ground?”

Men don’t have to rely on their bodies to get people’s attention, and women in past generations didn’t have to either. Gretchen Mol’s breasts may serve the short term goal of getting us to notice Vanity Fair (and her), and some people may even buy the magazine because of them, but what’s our long term goal, as a society? Do we keep taking more and more off young actresses so that Drew Barrymore gets noticed more than Sandra Bullock? Do we really want to use bare breasts to sell products? Are we at all willing to look at the big picture? At how all the practices and trends of a society make up that society?

I often think of an anecdote I heard about frogs. Apparently, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. This is the normal reflex to pain, danger. But, if you put a frog in a pan of water at room temperature and then turn on the heat, at no point will the frog sense that it is time to jump out. Ultimately it will be cooked. I think we are being slow cooked. Every time that we don’t notice that the line has been moved, or don’t care that it has, we are further deadened to the culture around us. I don’t think it’s prudish to suggest that the wet T-shirt contest may not be an appropriate cover image for regular newsstand fare. Is it just me or is it getting a little warm in here?